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Badi women of Nepal are trapped in a life of degradation

Bina Badi tends her garden behind a picket fence. Goats leap. Boys fly kites. Water buffalo laze in the river. Idyllic, except for the used condoms that litter the road and the fact that men have visited her house virtually every day for 28 of her 38 years to enjoy her body, and she sees no escape.

South Asia's caste system is infamous. The ancient tradition that once rigidly defined people's occupations continues to shape their social status and sense of self-worth. But few living under its influence are as degraded as the Badis of southwestern Nepal. Sometimes called untouchables among the untouchables — a term more about social than physical contact these days — Badi women have for decades been born into a life of prostitution.

"I started before menstruation, probably around 10," said the round-faced Bina Badi, wearing a flowered dress and gold earrings. "The first time was traumatic. I was terrified. I cried, so afraid."

Bina said her parents didn't force her, although they quietly encouraged her to follow tradition at a time when she was too young to know to do otherwise. One daughter often financially supports several family members.

Adding to Bina's indignity, many of the customers who pay $1 for sex — as many as 10 a day during festival times — are local politicians, businessmen, police officers. These luminaries from higher castes take advantage of her, she said, while shunning her in public, never once using their social position to counter the discrimination underpinning her fate.

Opportunities for other work are so limited, she said, she feels the only way she can survive is through prostitution.

"It's very entrenched," said Man Bahadur Chhetri, program director for the Nepal Youth Foundation.

The spider's silk entrapping the Badis is strong and often subtle. For years, children born of prostitutes without known fathers were unable to secure the national ID card that is needed for schools, government welfare programs, respectable jobs.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ordered the government to extend formal citizenship to Nepal's estimated 40,000 to 70,000 Badis, establish retraining and alternative employment programs and extend grants to vulnerable families.

Bureaucrats stalled until activists threatened in 2007 to undress publicly in Katmandu, embarrassing the government into setting up the programs. But little has changed, say the Badis, who blame inertia, corruption and Nepal's polarized government.

Manu Nepali, 18, whose mother and sister are prostitutes, hoped to raise his family's fortunes by becoming a driver. "I was about 13 before I fully realized what my mother did," he said. "The whole family's been dependent on her body."

His unsuccessful bid to get an ID card cost him half the $200 government grant money, which the family had hoped to use for a house or education. He spent weeks shuttling among bureaucracies before he eventually gave up, as do many in the largely landless, impoverished and illiterate community. Instead he became a common laborer, one of the few jobs open to uneducated Badi men.

Even Badis who have pulled themselves up in society give credit to prostitution. College-educated Nirmal Nepali, president of Dang's Badi Concerned Society, is among the few literate Badis here. His schooling was financed by his eldest sister, who worked for a decade as a prostitute from a room in the family home, encouraged by their parents who welcomed the income.

"I owe everything to them," he said.

Raising the community's sense of self-worth is a challenge in itself. Many Badi families welcome newborn girls for their earning potential, and some fathers even quit their menial jobs to live off their daughters once they're old enough to enter the "family business."

The government grants aren't always dispensed fairly, Nepali said, with non-Badi officials often giving the money to their relatives and friends rather than to the neediest. Of the 1,200 Badi families in his district, only 295 have received stipends, he estimated.

"The real beneficiaries aren't Badi," said his wife, Mira. "Or if they are, well-connected people get it rather than the single mothers, young girls, who really need it."

Badis trace their roots to the Licchavi dynasty in what is now northern India's Bihar state. In the 14th century, the tribe moved to Nepal, according to a research paper by Thomas Cox, an anthropologist at Katmandu's Tribhuvan University. There they received land and money for providing concubines to small-time rulers in western Nepal.

After 1950, local royalty lost power in a pro-democracy movement, and the Badis saw their clientele disappear. The tribe eventually turned to prostitution.

"With economic and social changes, their status went down and down," said Ghanashyam Dangi, founder of Rapti Vidyamandir Management College in Ghorahi. "Eventually they became common prostitutes and untouchables." Although Nepal banned untouchability in 1955, the practice remains deeply rooted.

Tatulam Nepali, 75, renowned for her singing and dancing, proudly recalls performing for the royal family in Katmandu.

"Three hundred years ago we sang and danced for kings," she said. "Now people misuse us, force us into prostitution. But our performance culture should be revived."

Limited education among Badis has hindered greater respectability even as the caste system slowly loses its grip. And most of those who try to break out to run tea stalls, tobacco shops or hair salons say customers know they're Badis and refuse to pay, abusing them or boycotting their business.

"You can change laws," Nirmal Nepali said. "It's a lot harder to change the culture."

Bina Badi, whose name is tattooed on her left fist, grew up in a dirt-poor family in which all four daughters became prostitutes. At one point, each of them married and seemed to free themselves. But they soon divorced and drifted back into prostitution.

Their drum-maker father and housewife mother lived off their daughters' earnings, his craftsmanship largely unappreciated in the rush for electronics and cheap drum imports from Bangladesh.

Bina Badi averages three or four customers a day.

"We don't want to continue, but if we don't, we can't eat," she said. "The government should help us find other jobs."

Although society is slowly changing, discrimination against Badis remains profound, she said, including prohibitions against using the same village pump, entering other people's homes, brushing against them.

"For many years, I thought it was my fate to be a prostitute," she said. "Now I realize this system wasn't made by God. It was made by man."

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